In 1954, with much fanfare, the United States celebrated the 300th anniversary of the birth of American Jewry and the beginnings of an American Jewish community.
It is now generally presumed that prior to the second half of the 17th century, a small handful of European Jews came individually, probably for economic prospects, to North America. If so, they either returned to Europe, eventually tried their luck elsewhere, or assimilated completely into the wider population of settlers. But they did not found any community, nor probably were they concerned with maintaining Jewish identity. The actual birth of the American Jewish community dates to 1654, when a group of twenty-three self-affirming Jews (the precise number has been questioned by recent research) arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, then under the control of the Dutch West India Company. Those Jews had been living in Recife (Pernambuco), Brazil, which the Dutch had wrested from the Portuguese in 1630 and where a formal Jewish community had been established (approximately 1,400–1,500 strong, at its height) on European models. When the Dutch surrendered Recife back to the Portuguese in 1654 and the specter of the Inquisition hovered, most of the remaining Jews—their number having already dwindled to less than half, as many had grown disenchanted with a deteriorating economy during the final years of Dutch rule—left rather than convert. Many who could afford to do so returned to Amsterdam; others resettled in Caribbean areas. The above-mentioned group of twenty-three refugees also headed, initially, for the Caribbean, but their landing was thwarted by the Spanish. We do not know if their final destination was eventually Holland, but when they were in effect stranded in New Amsterdam, virtually indigent and also unwelcome, they elected to stay permanently. This was made possible only by some friendly economic influence and pressure on their behalf, exerted on the Dutch West India Company by fellow Jews in Amsterdam. Within a year these settlers were joined by five Jewish families from Amsterdam who were dispatched to the colony in order to help root the newly planted Jewish foundations. There followed continued immigrations of Jews from Amsterdam, as well as from Dutch possessions in the New World and, later, from London. Thus the original twenty-three refugees are credited as the seeds of American Jewry—even though by the time England took control of the colony from the Dutch and it became New York, most of them had left. And even though there was a hiatus of Jewish settlement and community development for the first several years of British rule—so that the community was in a sense “refounded” in 1670—the date of 1654 has been accepted ever since as the birth year.
Thus the 1954 tercentenary was viewed by American Jewish leadership, in the words of the national committee that planned and implemented the celebration, as “an important milestone...a kind of spiritual birthday party for the Jews of America.” In a way, it turned out to be a spiritual celebration of America and American ideals as well, with the Jewish anniversary as the catalyst.
As early as 1948, the concept of a multifaceted, multi-event, and cross-country national celebration was first proposed to the American Jewish Historical Society by Rabbi David de Sola Pool, the minister and leader of America’s first and oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel in New York. All national Jewish organizations were invited to participate in the planning, which led eventually to the formation and incorporation of a consortium known as the American Jewish Tercentenary Committee—with a national committee of 300 members and local committees in more than 400 communities. The series of events was designed to last 300 days and was launched officially in September 1954 (the month in 1654 when the twenty-three refugees arrived) with a reconsecration service at Shearith Israel that included a promenade of rabbis from various parts of the United States and a procession of fourteen Torah scrolls. It was broadcasted over the ABC television network. The climax of the series was a dinner, where the speaker was President Dwight Eisenhower, and the conclusion occurred in June 1955, with a public assemblage at New York’s Carnegie Hall. During that period of nearly nine months, in scores of cities across the country, there were concerts, pageants, seminars, special religious services (Jewish as well as interfaith), banquets, exhibitions, publications, and radio and television broadcasts.
As a major part of the celebration, the Tercentenary Committee commissioned David Diamond to compose an orchestral work, leaving further detail to his discretion. It was to have two performances, by two orchestras, during the tercentenary period. “I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to write merely an orchestral piece,” Diamond recalled nearly a half century later:
I wanted a work with narration. So I got the idea for a kind of “spokesman.” And I thought, Hillel would be the man! Jeremiah, too. So I began reviewing biblical texts, and sayings of the great sage, Hillel; and other sources. And then I wrote my own text around these. So it’s really a work for narrator and orchestra.
Other sources for his script were Solomon Grayzel’s A History of the Jews, The Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship, various historical documents, and poetry by Moses Ibn Ezra and Yehuda Halevi.
The title Diamond gave his work, Aḥava—Brotherhood, reflected “the big thing that I still believe should happen in this difficult world of ours. So, the whole text is arranged around that concept.” For Diamond, the deeper connotations and ramifications of the tercentenary centered around that theme.
Indeed, the overall nine-month celebration was envisioned by its architects along general and universal rather than particular or parochial lines. The central theme was articulated officially as “Man’s opportunities and responsibilities under freedom.” The intended focus was thus upon American democratic ideals and the achievements and contributions of American Jews within and as a result of the opportunities afforded by those ideals. The emphasis was not to be on Jewish accomplishments in a Judaic context, but upon the contributions to American culture made by American Jews. On an even wider plane, the celebration was seen outside specifically Jewish circles—and among governmental bodies and leaders—as a reaffirmation of what were perceived as manifestly American social, political, and even spiritual values. The Rhode Island General Assembly, for example, passed a resolution hailing the occasion as a “unique opportunity for Americans to strengthen their understanding of the American tradition of harmony among all citizens.” Jewish leadership, too, recognized the wider purposes of the endeavor, as the national Tercentenary Committee chairman asserted that “in giving voice to the meaning of three centuries of constructive Jewish participation in the building of our American democracy, we shall be showing the strength and vitality of the ideals which all Americans hold in common.” Leaders of major Christian faiths and denominations expressed enthusiasm for the observance as well. The chairman of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, who was also the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cincinnati, thought it “altogether appropriate that the event, so historic and significant, be noted not only by Jewish people, but by the citizenry of the country generally.” And the president of the thirty-denomination National Council of Churches noted that “nothing could be more appropriate in the observance than a careful enquiry into man’s opportunities and responsibilities under freedom. All true Americans will desire to cooperate.”
Diamond’s narration script clearly reflects that overall approach to the tercentenary and the broad liberal interpretation of its contemporary significance. The text is not so much about the 17th-century historical incident, or even about that first group of immigrants per se, as it is about much-later utopian sentiments of universal brotherhood and much more recent ideas of political and social rights in society. Threading that text together, the 1654 landing becomes an emotional more than a historical anchor—a literary and dramatic departure point used as a quasi-refrain.
The text of Aḥava might even be considered a “period piece.” Some of its historical as well as stylistic aspects are, admittedly, problematic when measured by late-20th and early-21st-century yardsticks. Characteristic of patriotic postwar and mid-century treatments of such subjects, literary license and wishful sentiments sometimes overrule historical reality, and 20th-century sensibilities can seem superimposed on earlier generations. The twenty-three Jewish refugees in 1654 did not, of course, come to New Amsterdam because they had heard about such modern concerns and rallying cries as equality, racial freedom, or “equal rights”; nor could they have anticipated with futuristic dreams such late-18th-century propositions as “a universal brotherhood of man,” which in any case would not have been relevant to their lives. They did not “flee” Recife to “escape misery and suffering” (with few exceptions until at least the late 1930s, the popular but degrading image of “fleeing” is largely fictitious vis-à-vis Jewish immigration); nor did they pray to be brought to New Amsterdam. They simply chose to leave Brazil rather than convert to Christianity—but they left under the physical protection of the Portuguese commander there, who assisted them in securing ships and who issued severe warnings against any harm being done to the departing Jews. They ended up in New Amsterdam because they had no further means to pay for passage to Amsterdam, where, in any case, the Jewish community was not eager to have thrust upon them the financial burden of yet another group of indigent refugees. Once the settlers were allowed to remain in New Amsterdam, after initial orders to vacate, they were not offered a chance to “live their own thoughts without fear.” The Dutch colony was a commercial and mercantile enterprise, not an ideological one. Even after the order preventing even private Jewish worship services was reversed following pressure from Amsterdam, for a good while they could hold religious services only inconspicuously in their homes or later in an unmarked mill loft. Jews did not aspire to full political equality, but only to free and competitive economic opportunity—which they achieved long before political enfranchisement.
Obviously many of the references in Diamond’s text are to later 19th and 20th-century immigrations, although here too there is the typical uncritical and romantic idealization that was current in the 1950s. We now recognize that, for the most part—until the 1930s—the various waves of Jewish immigration comprised the least economically advantaged, the least prosperous, and the least educated elements of European Jewry. They came in search of economic opportunity and betterment, not universal brotherhood. Until the Nazi party period in Germany and Austria and the Second World War, it was mostly succeeding generations of Jewish immigrants who made substantial contributions to American intellectual and scientific culture; and true Jewish political participation on the national level did not really begin until the Roosevelt administration.
Compared with Europe as a whole, America did not have a monopoly on virtue as a welcome mat for immigrants. Its openness to large-scale immigration (not only concerning Jews), until it was later thwarted, was understandably owing to economic interests and considerations, not magnanimity. Yet regardless of motive, that openness did eventually translate into opportunity and mobility. Such sobering realities of history do not detract from the wisdom, if not the genius, of the Founding Fathers. Their extraordinary vision and foresight ultimately influenced the development of a liberal democratic society that proved invigorating for Jewish culture, in which Jews eventually came to participate freely, to mutual benefit, on an unprecedented scale. Stylistic fashions and superceded historical-political perceptions aside, that grateful acknowledgment is at the core of Aḥava. Its optimistic message and hopeful spirit can be as relevant today as during the tercentenary—in some respects even more so, since at least some of its hopes have been further realized since then. As the curtain was about to rise on the tercentenary, The Washington Post Times and Herald expressed an underlying motive for the celebration:
A special gratitude, determination and pride today comes from Americans of Jewish faith. The gratitude is for the rewards of living in a free country; the pride is for having helped to make it that way; the determination is to keep and toughen the idea.
In its broad strokes, Aḥava encapsulated that sentiment.
Aḥava received its world premiere in Washington, D.C., in November 1954 by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Howard Mitchell, with Lorne Greene narrating. A subsequent performance in Rochester, New York, was conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.
Sung and spoken in English
How long will the scales of Justice remain unbalanced?
“Yet a little while, and the wicked is no more. yea, thou shalt look well at his place, and he is not.
The humble shall inherit the land and cherish the abundance of Peace.”
“O doves, by cruel foes beset,
Dispersed to every wind—
Sad ones, devoid of strength,
Grieving in the shackles of wretchedness.
In tranquil places, in houses safe and strong,
God bring you to find rest!”
“Let them not cry despairing, nor say:
‘Hope faileth and our strength is ebbing.’
Let them believe that they shall be always,
Nor cease until there be no night nor day.”
The evil reign, the righteous suffer.
How long will the scales of Justice remain unbalanced?
“Seek the peace whither I have caused you to be carried away...and pray for it unto the Lord God, for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”
“Zion shall be redeemed with Justice, and they that return of her, with righteousness.”
“For as the seed of peace, the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew, and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all things.”
“He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the rebuke of His people shall He take away from off all the earth.”
They had heard about Equality for all men: freedom for many races to live together for a common good.
They had heard about Equal Rights: would their rights as individuals truly be protected for the benefit of all?
They had heard about Tolerance: could it be true that in the New World many races, religions, and cultures could exist harmoniously for the benefit of many?
The dream of a universal brotherhood might begin there! “I will make Justice the line, and Righteousness the plummet.”
And so they sailed.
In the year sixteen hundred fifty-four.
They fled to escape misery and suffering, ill will and persecution and warfare.
They came—their hearts full of the ideals of their forefathers of universal morality, forbearance, and brotherhood.
They sought the peace and the protection of that place they had prayed to be brought to.
And so they arrived.
The place New Amsterdam,
In the year sixteen hundred fifty-four.
A united few.
“Ye shall look upon it, and remember all the commands of the Lord thy God, and do them.”
They saw. They remembered. They did.
The New World offered them the chance to live their own thoughts without fear, encouraged them to pursue ideals that were fired by their innermost convictions.
They consecrated themselves to God, and the Nation grew stronger.
They would learn that Freedom is relative, that tyrants arise easily amidst confusion and digressions of justice.
The way would be full of obstacles. But they placed their trust in the God who had led them out of bondage before, and would do so again!
They brought a profound religious faith with them.
And they kept it alive and fervent within a community of differing faiths.
They brought a deep and reverent respect for the intellectual life and artistic endeavors.
Without the life of the mind, their souls were listless.
They brought scientific curiosity and helped the flow of industrial progress.
They brought a love and dedication to human freedom and human dignity.
They brought a need for social justice and insisted on an equality of economic opportunity.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
But tyrants arise easily....
And the voice of Benjamin Franklin spoke out, to hold back these self-appointed judges:
“Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general of what profession or religion so ever? Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, home, or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship?”
Newport...New Amsterdam, and still farther along the Atlantic coast.
The struggle would be hard.
Between the wilderness and the sea, they moved steadily to the fulfillment of their dream.
They worshiped, they taught.
They worked, they shared.
Newport, August, seventeen hundred ninety.
Thus they write collectively to George Washington:
“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable right of free citizens, we now, with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of all events, behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to All liberty of conscience and immunities of Citizenship:— deeming everyone, of whatever Nation or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
And George Washington answered them thus:
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
“Behold, how good and how fulfilling it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
Our struggle is not finished.
That Past once again speaks directly to the Future.
And the tyrants listen.
It is they who would stop the flow of progress.
All countries that hold Freedom sacred realize they must forever be aware of a United World about them; and hold doubly sacred every individual—living, striving, prospering, aspiring within its own complex social structure.
Sixteen hundred fifty-four.
The moral base on which a great Democracy had been raised was rooted deep in the rich soil of their moral heritage.
And it would bring forth newer, stronger roots to be cultivated by an entire civilization in a new continent.
May Civilization flourish and Peace be its guiding strength.
Peace is more than an end of wars.
Peace depends upon an international fraternity to abolish the ignorance, the greed, and the mistrust that are the causes of war.
Truth, Justice, and Peace are one.
“The work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever.”
O Lord, seek to direct the feelings of all men to harmonious and brotherly relations between all peoples of the world.
Unite our emotional and intellectual powers for the benefits of a contented humanity.
Make our collective conscience speak with the voice of Justice and Reason.
Show us that Equal Rights for every man for the benefit of all be a living reality under Your guidance.
Give us integrity, clear conscience, and moral strength.
Give us mercy to build understanding and discourage group hatreds.
Through Truth, show us the way to Freedom.
Show us the paths of Goodness, Benevolence, Compassion to build the self-respect without which mutual respect between all peoples of the world is an impossibility, and without which an enduring peace cannot become a certainty.
Give us the security and the opportunity to seek out our best and reject our worst, so to gain mutual benefit from mutual esteem.
Make available for our enlightenment the Truth that the Brotherhood of Man recognizes no barriers of nationality, color of skin, language, or creed.
“Have we not all one Father?
Hath not God created us?
Why do we deal treacherously—every man against his brothers, profaning the covenant of our Fathers?”
May all Thy children see their aspirations fulfilled, so that by their fulfillment, their love for mankind may increase and establish one humanity on earth, even as there be but one God in heaven.
“May all men recognize that they are brothers, so that one in spirit and one in fellowship, they may be forever united before Thee. Then shall Thy Kingdom be established on earth and the word of Thine ancient seer be fulfilled: the Lord will reign forever and ever. On that day the Lord shall be One and His Name shall be One.”
Publisher: Mills Music
Editing Engineer (Narration): Marc Stedman
Director of Narration: Isaiah Sheffer